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For most New Orleanians, Mardi Gras represents the magic of the Cresent City. For most filmmakers, it represents a bizarre world.
“An American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” – Mark Twain
“I don’t want realism. I want magic!”
– Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire
Like Blanche DuBois’ Mardi Gras ball gown “rented for 50 cents from some rag-picker,” Carnival in the movies represents possibility – or at least the illusion of it. In reality, it’s a season and a state of mind, and almost impossible to adequately capture on the big screen. Indeed, as magical as the Carnival season may seem – from the 12th Night celebrations and parades to the krewe balls and street parties all the way up to the sanitation department’s street sweep on the evening of Fat Tuesday – it’s elusive.
Mardi Gras in movies often serves as a turning point, a deus ex machina, where fate suddenly deals a hand and rarely for the better. If movies set in New Orleans are, as some believe a sketchy collection that is ripe with clichés and short on authenticity, then the ones involving Mardi Gras are often outright bizarre.
How else to describe the 1993 disaster Night Trap – originally titled Mardi Gras for the Devil – in which a cop (Robert Davi) tracks a serial killer (Michael Ironside) carrying out a Faustian pact. Or the 1953 comedy Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, in which the famed comic team winds up in a rocket ship heading for the mysterious planet but instead ends up at Mardi Gras. Or even the 1991 tour de force JFK, in which alleged Kennedy assassination co-conspirator Clay Shaw costumes as Mercury – gold body paint and all – for a gay Mardi Gras orgy.
Not exactly a night with the family on the St. Charles Avenue parade route catching beads from Bacchus, eh? As with so many things in New Orleans, Mardi Gras often gets a little lost in translation.
So laments Carnival historian and parade and ball designer Henri Schindler in his excellent 1997 book Mardi Gras New Orleans, in which he writes: “No film that ever attempted to depict Mardi Gras ever came close. The reality was more fabulous than any dream Hollywood could confect, and that awareness defined the sense of place and good fortune to familiar to New Orleans.”
Whether the potential magic of Mardi Gras is fully realized or falls flat, its presence and impact on these films is undeniable. Sometimes you see it in settings as lavish as the balls of the season or as chaotic as in the crowds on the street or around the parade floats. Sometimes there’s pomp, other times sheer horror.
But from the lost comedy of 1912’s Mardi Gras Mix-Up all the way to last year’s animated The Princess and the Frog, Carnival’s influence in movies can never be ignored.
THE HORROR, THE HORROR!
For most New Orleanians, Mardi Gras is a season of holiday, a joyous celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany, a time to have fun, whether for the family or for a single on the prowl before the cleansing abstinence of Lent.
But for some filmmakers, Mardi Gras is a dark cloud of evil; a capitulation to sin; a gateway to hell. The idea, it seems, is to take the pagan origins of this Saturnalian notion and make the pagans pay for their sins.
Why else would director Bill Condon drive the slave ghost Candyman from Chicago to New Orleans for his 1995 sequel, Farewell to the Flesh, so his avenging dark angel can wreak havoc right at party time. The same notion enticed Dracula from London to seek out his rival Van Helsing’s daughter in the stylish Dracula 2000, and inspired a range of other killers, including an Aztec high priest in 1978’s Mardi Gras Massacre, and a demonic killer inspired by a Faustian pact in Night Trap.
Even nature has been unsettled by the revelry, as shown in the 1976 made for TV movie The Savage Bees, in which African killer bees brought over in a freighter put a sting in the festivities. (Laugh all you want about those bees; the movie scored a Best Sound Mixing Emmy, so clearly it generated a nice buzz with the academy.)
Of the group, Farewell to the Flesh is the most promising and therefore the biggest disappointment. While Mardi Gras is provided as a time frame and backdrop for the Candyman’s return to his hometown for revenge, the Carnival aspects remain elusive. We’re mostly left with modest street parades and occasional lovers having sex in public. Even Condon, in his commentary for the DVD release, fails to describe in any detail the importance of Mardi Gras to the plot beyond the predictable mention of Lent and abstinence.
Henri Schindler provided papier-mâché props and mini-floats to the production crew and became acquainted with Condon. While he marveled at Condon’s later work, which included the Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters, he thought Farewell to the Flesh was a disappointment, for one big reason: “Mardi Gras was hardly in it.”
“WHAT’S HAPPENING … ON THE STREET?”
Life on the streets of New Orleans during Carnival has its own rhythm. You never know who you’ll meet, what you’ll catch, or where you’ll wind up. The possibility of catching beads of ephemeral value is well worth the price of admission.
Filmmakers have struggled over the years to capture the street scenes of Carnival, no doubt due to its inherent chaos that makes jazz seem downright disciplined. We will soon see the latest efforts to capture that madness when Mardi Gras, an American Pie-type party film, hits theaters sometime this year; (the Feb. 16 release date has been postponed indefinitely).
The most famous Mardi Gras street riot occurred in 1969’s Easy Rider, the seminal indie film by Dennis Hopper and co-star Peter Fonda. The cross-country biker odyssey of two hippies winds ever onward to Mardi Gras, where they pick up hookers and enjoy the party but later wind up dead on a desolate highway.
The footage for these scenes was shot at the beginning of the production and has become the stuff of Hollywood legend, as chronicled in the book and documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
“We had no script,” Hopper said. “All I knew is that we were going to take an acid trip in the cemetery. And that Orson Welles had failed here trying to shoot Mardi Gras (actually, it was in Rio). And it was a nightmare.”
Despite in-fighting and poor planning, Hopper and his rag-tag crew managed to get verite-style footage of flambeaux carriers, crowds in the French Quarter and the infamous acid trip in the cemetery. (The crew included future documentarian and Tulane grad Les Blank, who went on to direct such Louisiana films as the Mardi Gras-themed Always for Pleasure.) The producers deemed the 16-millimeter footage a complete disaster, but it retains a psychedelic charm that some future revelers could probably relate to.
Speaking of trips, nothing could compare to the bizarre idea behind 1953’s Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, a late-career effort by the famed comedy team. Here they play bumblers who stumble into a rocket ship headed for Mars, but land instead in New Orleans. They confuse the myriad papier-mâché walking figures for Martians – naturally.
While a perfunctory Abbott and Costello vehicle, the movie isn’t without its Carnival charms, particularly in the form of Oscar-winning costume designer Leah Rhodes’ papier-mâché designs. Never before, or since, has a movie shown so much of this Carnival treasure. Her work features out-sized heads that often spring up and spin on cue. Whether it’s for a French waitress, a circus clown, a pumpkin, a cartoon-like African tribal woman or a peasant girl that disconnects at the mid-section, they match perfectly the archival parade footage that precedes the scene.
If all Mardi Gras street parties were like this, the world would be a better place.
The original Mardi Gras (1958) has a hint of the spring break vibe of the upcoming comedy of the same name, but with a squeaky-clean slant. The musical stars crooners Pat Boone, Tommy Sands and Gary Crosby as military cadets on a mission to Mardi Gras to invite French movie star Michele Marton (Christine Carére) to their formal. Romance between Boone and Carére blossoms on the streets during Carnival. Masked street performers and revelers dazzle them with tricks, set to Lionel Newman’s Oscar-nominated music. It is all done in a kind of alternate Mardi Gras universe from every other film that’s come since. Boone’s cadet eschews a vintage wine for a glass of milk! But it delivers on the possibility of romance.
On the flip side, a Mardi Gras street is more insidious in the 1984 crime thriller Tightrope starring Clint Eastwood as kinky cop Wes Block tracking a serial killer with whom he shares too many character traits. During the movie’s lone true parade scene, the detective escorts his two daughters and his love interest (Genevieve Bujold) down a block filled with masked revelers. It’s not until the end of the scene that we learn one of the revelers, who’s handed the younger daughter a treat, is the killer. That a murderer could be walking among us, masked and anonymous, delivers a chilling note to the proceedings.
In John Badham’s 1993 spy thriller Point of No Return (a remake of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita), sexy government assassin Nina (Bridget Fonda) is duped into thinking she’s been given a free vacation with her boyfriend J.P. (Dermot Mulroney) to Mardi Gras only to learn she’s been assigned another hit. Tension builds as Fonda sets her rifle’s sights from her hotel bathroom, waiting to hear whether she’s supposed to take out a man or a woman – both dressed in royal French costumes. (It’s understandable she’d have a hard time figuring out who’s who.) J.P. compounds the problem by trying to propose to her through the bathroom door, and tears stream down over her glittery makeup as she pulls the trigger.
As J.P. later learns, with Mardi Gras, anything’s possible.
THE BELLES OF THE BALL
With their allusions to royal courts and a bygone era, Mardi Gras balls represent the culmination of a tradition and the reaffirmation of a culture. And so it shouldn’t be too surprising to see Mardi Gras’ movie moments at their best at the ball. That magic was exquisitely captured long before The Princess and the Frog.
In William Wyler’s Academy Award-winning 1938 movie Jezebel, Bette Davis portrays a Southern belle whose petulance comes back to haunt her in the mythical Olympus ball. Up to this point, Davis’ Julie Marsden has breezed through her life and her relationship with her practical banker fiancé Preston (Henry Fonda). Craving attention, Julie grows miffed when Preston chooses to remain in an important meeting instead of joining her for a scheduled afternoon of shopping. To tease him, she brazenly decides to wear a flaming red dress to a ball in which the women are required to wear virginal white.
Preston, equally stubborn, calls her bluff and not only takes her to the ball in the gown but refuses to leave once the couple becomes ostracized by the shocked guests.
The scene is a study in bravura Hollywood filmmaking shot during its golden era, thanks to Wyler, cinematographer Ernest Haller and costume designer Orry-Kelly. Film historians have long praised the scene, which begins as Wyler’s camera fixes on a royal court and then pans back and to the left to capture first the elaborate orchestra and then the waltzing couples in their white gowns and black tuxedos, a mammoth chandelier almost dominating the foreground. Just as Julie and Preston arrive at the ball, their friends shun them. Instead of acquiescing to establishing shots of a wondrous ball contrasted by an ever-uglier mood, Wyler expertly captures those treasured Southern notions of chivalry and honor.
“It’s a perfect assemblage of sound, light, camera movement, cutting, performing – all the possible elements of film,” film critic Jeanne Basinger noted in her commentary that accompanies the restored and remastered 2006 DVD release. “And it is done with such grace.”
Jezebel was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Davis earned her second for Best Actress. It’s no small coincidence that David O. Selznick recruited Steiner and Haller for Gone with the Wind – though not, infamously enough, Davis as Scarlett O’Hara.
One could argue Atlanta’s loss was New Orleans’ gain.
The Flame of New Orleans, another period piece that premiered three years later (1941), features a Mardi Gras party without the cinematic sweep that graces Jezebel. And while the phrase “Mardi Gras” is never mentioned, the Carnival atmosphere is undeniable as fraudulent Parisian countess Claire Ledoux (Marlene Dietrich) is escorted by wealthy businessman Charles Giraud (Roland Young) to a party attended by both New Orleans’ elite and hoi polloi. Giraud seeks out a riverboat captain (Bruce Cabot) who previously had offended the “countess.”
Director Rene Clair’s camera soaks in the party scene in similar fashion to Wyler in Jezebel, panning across to reveal New Orleans society and then a man on a high wire and revelers on swings, a Ferris wheel and people drinking at tables underneath moss and oak trees.
Perhaps no other film captures the brilliant colors of Mardi Gras like the 1941 classic Louisiana Purchase, whose ball sequence (following a float parade) provides a vivid climax. Adapted from Irvin Berlin’s Broadway musical, the movie stars Bob Hope as Jim Taylor, a pliable U.S. senator who recruits a Viennese beauty (ballerina Vera Zorina) to seduce a pious senator sent down to investigate corruption. His machinations set off a love triangle that rolls right into Mardi Gras and shows how sex and politics have always been New Orleans traditions.
The succeeding Carnival scenes – parade and ball – show off Oscar-nominated color cinematography by Harry Hallenberger and Ray Rennahan and art direction by Raoul Pene Du Bois and Stephen Seymour. Floats in the parade include a reenactment of Louisiana’s birth, and the pirate Jean Lafitte. (Reenactments on floats are rarely displayed in these movies.) In the subsequent ball scene, Zorina dances among beauties costumed in gowns of vibrant fuchsia, blue and green.
It also sets the stage for Taylor’s blackmail scheme to backfire, making it even more difficult for him to win over an angered ballerina. (Given Bob Hope’s history with women in movies, it’s a coin toss as to whether he’ll succeed.)
The Princess and Frog goes even further in the promise of magic that Mardi Gras offers. Just as the ball in Jezebel becomes a kind of Waterloo for Julie Marsden, the ball in The Princess and the Frog propels Tiana on a journey to fulfill her destiny and marry her prince.
And Mardi Gras and New Orleans never looked better. The old European charm of the Crescent City perfectly matches the old Disney charm of hand-drawn animation, helping the city come to life once again on the big screen.
The two Mardi Gras scenes, which bookend the film’s second act in the bayou, offer a peek into both the balls and parades of the season. The ball scene features Tiana’s friend Charlotte making her debut as Charlotte’s father, Big Daddy LaBouff (voiced by John Goodman), is honored as “King of the Mardi Gras parade.” (It’s a dubious plot device, as no one gets named “King,” or we’ll assume, Rex, for five consecutive years as Big Daddy has.)
But it is Tiana, in a sparkling sky-blue gown borrowed from Charlotte, who captivates Prince Naveen. He mistakes her for the princess, setting off the series of misadventures that will lead to the fairy tale happy ending.
When Naveen and Tiana return out of the bayou as frogs, it’s Fat Tuesday, and a night parade is rolling. (Given the Jazz Age setting, we can assume that it’s Comus’ floats that are rolling, incorrectly, through the French Quarter.) The floats sport a warm glow as they cruise down the street, beads hanging on street signs. As the final seconds of Carnival tick away, the audience prays that Tiana will turn into a princess.
Directors John Musker and Ron Clements, as well as producer Peter Del Vecho, were invited to participate in Mardi Gras aboard a float. “The climax of our film takes place in Mardi Gras,” says Musker in the movie’s production notes. “So we were trying to get some of the vibe in terms of the float design and the ambiance.”
The Princess and the Frog proved that Mardi Gras can be magical, and that wishes do come true. While more than a few movies try to turn Carnival into a nightmare, here’s to the ones that know what dreams are made of.